In 2015 my reading took me around the world and back and forth in time, to 1960s Ireland, to England just after the reign of King Arthur, to the recent past on an obscure island off the Newfoundland coast, to modern war-torn Iraq, to suburban 20th-century Baltimore, and lots of points in between. These diverse and sometimes fanciful locations are a persuasive reminder of how important it is for an author to situate the action of a work of fiction with specific and exacting attention to detail. Effectively drawn, setting can enhance the sensory appeal of a story or novel and lend it the authenticity of lived experience: what some describe as a cinematic quality. Just as images that are burned into the reader's mind are not easily forgotten, so too with sounds and smells.
But while the setting may vary, human behaviour does not. Characters will always be motivated to build a better life for themselves and their families, to solve a mystery, to risk everything for love, to evade a miserable fate or to atone for past mistakes. Some characters want to reveal the truth. Others want to cover it up.
And in all these instances--and regardless of setting--the author's job is the same: to make us turn the page because we have to find out what happens next.
The authors of the books listed below do this and do it well.
It is the 1960s and Nora Webster's husband Maurice has died young, leaving her to fend for herself and her four children in a small town in Southern Ireland. Maurice was a teacher who was loved and respected throughout the community: a presence whom people gravitated toward, known for his love of company, his compassion and his strong political beliefs. For the years of their marriage Nora was content to exist in his shadow. But with his death she is thrust into the front line of life and must make a go of it. The two girls, Fiona and Aine, are more or less grown and out of the house, but still at home are Conor and Donal, youngsters who must find their way without a father. Every day Nora feels the tremendous loss of her husband--almost minute by minute--but she has no choice but to heal, a process that is gradual and begins with her wishing out loud that people would cease their unannounced visits and pitying stares and let her grieve in peace. Eventually she finds herself facing major lifestyle choices (selling the cottage, returning to work) and with each one a subtle distancing from Maurice and his influence takes place. Toibin's novel chronicles Nora's gradual awakening, from tentative widow and mother deferring to the wishes if others and second-guessing her every move, to independent woman getting on with things and building a life she can call her own. The novel is set in life's trenches, where people drag themselves out of bed each morning to face a day that might very well defeat them. Toibin's prose achieves stunning elegance in its very simplicity. The writing is sometimes little more than a chronicle of what happens moment by moment. But this is Toibin's genius. He immerses the reader in Nora's conscious thoughts so that not only do we see the world through her eyes, but we feel her needs and desires and suffer keenly her losses and injuries. Such drama as exists is built around encounters and Nora's anticipation (or dread) of them. Because this is art imitating life you might be fooled into thinking you are reading a novel in which nothing happens. It is only at the end when you emerge from Nora’s story and realize where you've been that you grasp the level of skill needed to create a complete and entirely engaging world in prose.
Miriam Toews’ extraordinary novel All My Puny Sorrows is an examination of the tragedy inherent in the condition of being human, possibly one of the most brutally honest such chronicles we’re likely to encounter. This is a novel primarily of two sisters. Yolandi, the narrator, is an author with several moderately successful YA novels to her credit and Elfrieda is a concert pianist with a global reputation and a devoted fan base. Yolandi is more or less contented with where she is in life, if she forgets for a moment that she has given birth to two children by two different men, neither of whom is married to her, that she’s broke, and that she’s bored with her novel series and carries the manuscript of her unfinished literary novel around with her in a plastic bag. Elfrieda, intensely intellectual, childless and married to doting and long-suffering Nic, has built a riotously successful concert career. She can write her own ticket whenever she wants by going on tour because everywhere she goes her concerts sell out. The difference is that Elfrieda is desperately unhappy and wants to die. Indeed, desperation is at the crux of the novel: the action revolves around Yolandi’s desperate efforts to keep her sister alive and Elfrieda’s equally desperate efforts to slough off a life that has become a torment. Elfrieda’s latest suicide attempt has taken place in the weeks leading up to another concert tour. Yolandi, her mother and Nic struggle to bring Elfrieda through this latest crisis, hopefully in a way that won’t jeopardize the tour. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that the tour will not happen. Central to the novel is a loving, supportive and emotionally intimate relationship between two siblings. At a certain point Yolandi realizes that she will never convince her sister that life is preferable to death, and with this realization finds herself facing a crisis of conscience. The brilliance of Miriam Toews is her ability to take a situation fraught with grief and despair and unbearable sadness and leaven it with humour. This is a family that has suffered a similar loss in the past (the girls’ father killed himself) and as Yolandi struggles to decide on a course of action and we approach what seems an inevitable outcome, Yolandi's behaviour grows erratic and the prose develops a frantic demented momentum that makes it a joy to read. Most of us have been touched in some manner by suicide. It’s impossible to not feel strongly about it. The decision to end a life, even (especially?) your own, should never be easy or simple. All My Puny Sorrows teaches that only by accepting the tragedy of life for what it is will we triumph and move forward.
Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread is about family and the joys and challenges of growing and living as a unit. Red and Abby Whitshank raised their four children in the house on Bouton Road (in Baltimore) where Red spent his own childhood. In fact, the house was built with loving (some would say obsessive) care by Red's father, Junior Whitshank. The story begins in the 1990s with Red and Abby trying to figure out their feckless son, Denny, who has left home and whose unanchored style of life, which follows no discernable pattern and includes long periods with no communication, is a constant source of worry. Later, Red and Abby, now in their seventies, are beginning to come to terms with the process of aging. This is when tragedy strikes and everything changes. The novel then switches gears and we return to the late 1950s, with Red and Abby in their teens and just starting to know one another and fall in love. The story then jumps further back in time to Depression-Era Baltimore, where Junior Whitshank has gone in an attempt to find work and make something of himself. And lastly, we return to the contemporary and post-tragedy Whitshanks, who are facing the questions and challenges that all families face when people get old and have to accept unwelcome changes in their lives. This bare-bones description makes it sound like Tyler has taken a scattershot approach to constructing her novel, but this is not the case. She is simply dramatizing the past in order to bring the present more fully to life, and in this she succeeds magnificently. Nobody is better at depicting family in all its peculiar, maddening and messy particulars than Anne Tyler. By the novel's end we probably know the Whitshanks better than we know our own family, because their secrets have been exposed and we've seen them at their very best and very worst. It is testimony to this author's talent that her characters can be mean and generous, suspicious and unguarded all within a single scene, and are more believable for it. In Tyler's world spouses defy one another, daughters argue, sons come to blows and yet the relationships survive and people are still capable of laughter. A Spool of Blue Thread demonstrates that twenty novels into her career, Anne Tyler remains a witty and observant student of the human heart.
The Blackhouse (the first volume of Peter May's Lewis Trilogy) is remarkable for several reasons. It is a rapid-paced and absorbing who-done-it. It is a brilliant character study of a man haunted by his past. And it is a thoroughly engaging, deeply imaginative and often dazzling piece of writing that makes liberal use of elements of literary fiction to gradually reveal why over many years its varied cast of characters have behaved and acted in secretive and hurtful ways. Detective Inspector Finlay Macleod has been sent to the Isle of Lewis (off Scotland's north-west coast) to investigate a murder that bears a striking resemblance to an unsolved case in Edinburgh on which he is the lead detective. What's more, he is a native of the island, and so is returning home about 15 years after he was last there. Fin is seeking common elements between the two murders, and his search is initially inconclusive. But as the days go by he encounters one person after another who was part of his life as he was growing up—school friends, ex-girlfriends, casual acquaintances and antagonists of long-standing—and each adds another layer to the story. The novel is constructed of chapters that alternate between the present (narrated in the third person) and the past (narrated by Fin in the first person), and it is a treat for the reader to slowly figure out why this is necessary. Perhaps the single most impressive aspect of May's writing is how he uses the wild, beautiful and brutally unforgiving setting of the remote Isle of Lewis to reveal and reflect the inner lives of his characters. This is a land that has hardly changed in hundreds of years, where the residents live in the grip of ancient traditions and where people scrape a meager living from the island and the sea that surrounds it. It’s a place that bestows its gifts grudgingly and stands ready to kill you if you give it a chance. Nothing has come easily for the inhabitants of Lewis, and so it is no surprise that they don't give up anything easily. Peter May doles out the clues to the solution of the mystery in a measured fashion, raising the tension to an excruciating pitch in the book's final sections as Fin gropes toward an answer. Darkly atmospheric and intricately plotted, The Blackhouse is one of those rare novels that satisfies on multiple levels.
Deborah-Anne Tunney’s engaging and enjoyable story collection, The View from the Lane, treats time in a fluid manner, looking both forward and backward, drawing the reader irresistibly into a world of memory and nostalgia. The volume consists of nineteen closely linked stories and can be read as such: each story a separate, intimate drama. But taken together and read in sequence, Tunney’s stories coalesce to build narrative momentum in the manner of a loosely structured novel. The stories focus on the Howard family of Ottawa, whom we first meet in 1920, the last year that the nine surviving Howard children (the firstborn having died of scarlet fever at the age of six) lived together in the house on Nelson Street. However, the book’s central presence is Amy—daughter of June, youngest of the four Howard sisters—who, in the book’s brief “Overture,” set in 1956, is four years old. The stories are told from a variety of narrative perspectives and range more or less across the ninety years of June's life, from her childhood to her death in an assisted-living facility. Along the way we spend time with each of the Howard sisters as they grow into young women, marry, have children, get divorced or become widowed, and mature into old age. As we progress through the collection, this generation recedes into the background and Amy’s generation steps forward onto centre stage. Amy herself grows up, marries, has a son, and divorces. These are stories that make subtle and poignant drama out of the stuff of ordinary life--some might say "mundane"-- with all the joy and sorrow and triumph and tragedy that living in the real world entails. This would be reason enough to hunt down and read this book. However, Deborah-Anne Tunney is not just a skilled storyteller. She is a careful and observant writer. Her precise and restrained prose, exquisitely crafted, is a joy to read. This is fiction bursting with vividly imagined detail that brings to life on the page the middle decades of the previous century, as well as our contemporary world. Tunney’s characters are fully individualized, their interactions and dramas small and large entirely convincing. “The Wedding” is a particular standout, a story that takes place in front of the church as the guests and wedding party await the arrival of the bride. The story gathers together an ensemble of characters from several generations and shifts its focus seamlessly from one to the other, each taking his or her turn providing the voice of the narrative. In the process we observe them observing each other and see revealed their hopes and desires, their fears and disappointments and petty jealousies. In some respects The View from the Lane is a modest book. It does not pretend to be about anything more than the lives of some very ordinary people. But there is nothing modest about the accomplishment it represents. This is a fine debut collection of short fiction by a talented writer and well worth seeking out.
Tony Breau's career as a corrections officer has ended in the wake of an incident that resulted in the death of an inmate. Guilt-ridden, he has returned to his Nova Scotia home, in the village of St. Ninian. Awaiting him there are various friends and neighbours as well as ghosts from his past: Catherine Stewart (Caddy), with whom many years earlier he was in love but who left town one day without explanation, Neil MacDonald, a tormentor from his school days, and Dwayne Strickland, a much younger local man whose criminal actions led him to cross paths with Tony in his professional capacity. Dwayne is a charming manipulator, an ex-con who knows how to read people and push their buttons. When Tony arrives in St. Ninian, Dwayne is living on his own in his family's old house and building a reputation among local youth as the go-to for drugs. Unfortunately for him a girl has died of an overdose under his roof--Mary Stewart, Caddy's grand-daughter--and he has been charged with murder, and because of their shared history he seeks out Tony for advice and for testimony on his behalf. However, the facts of the case are inconclusive, and when it comes down to the crunch the case is thrown out for lack of evidence before it can go to trial. With Strickland free and the girl's death unresolved, Tony finds himself at the centre of a volatile mix of emotion, accusation and speculation, all of which contribute--in a series of troubling and tragic events that as the story moves forward begin to carry the weight of inevitability--to the book's searing climax. In the world that Linden MacIntyre conjures in this novel truth is layered and multi-faceted: the deeper you dig the more you find, but even when you hold it in your hand it changes appearance depending on the angle of the light. Morally compromised and struggling with an array of demons, Tony Breau attracts our sympathy even while we acknowledge his many personal weaknesses and the numerous poor choices he's made in his life and continues to make in the pages of this book. Punishment can be enjoyed as a crime thriller, but it is one that probes human motivation in unsentimental fashion and unflinchingly demonstrates that secrets and lies long past can have far-reaching consequences.